NASA Administrator Dan Goldin Sees Bright Future for GA

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EDITORIAL. When NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin addressed the 1998 AOPA Expo in Palm Springs, California last Saturday, he captivated the packed audience of pilots and aircraft owners for an hour as he described NASA's vision of the future of personal air transportation over the next 10 to 25 years. AVweb's publisher Carl Marbach summarizes and comments upon Goldin's roadmap for the future of General Aviation.

NOTE: You can listen to a full-length RealAudio feed of Dan Goldin's speech here on AVweb, and also read the prepared text furnished by NASA.

ATISHave you ever listened to any of AVweb's audio streams? Well, this is the time. NASA administrator Dan Goldin addressed the 1998 AOPA convention in Palm Springs, California on Saturday and had the audience captivated for about one hour describing NASA's vision of the future for personal air transportation. Listening to the future is hard. Hard, because what Administrator Goldin had to say is what we have always wanted to hear, but yet is so hard to believe. Really, you have to hear it yourself, or read it if you prefer.

According to Goldin, NASA plans to spend the next 25 years working with industry to develop smart airframes that cost no more than a luxury car and generate no more noise or emissions; avionics that provide greatly-enhanced situational awareness, with terrain and real-time weather graphics in the cockpit; piston engines that run for thousands of hours on jet fuel without scheduled maintenance; and smart airports that have sophisticated GPS-based instrument landing systems but require no control towers. Goldin paints a picture of personal aircraft that will cruise at 200 to 400 MPH and yet be simple enough to fly so that a large percentage of the adult population will qualify to fly them, inexpensive enough that most middle-class American families will be able to afford them, and ubiquitous enough that Hertz and Avis will rent them.

To the optimistic-yet-skeptical audience at AOPA Expo, many of the goals Goldin talked about seem impossible. But given the fact that they come from the same folks that put men on the moon and landed a robot on Mars, you want to believe that NASA can pull them off.

When asked how the general non-pilot population would feel about NASA investing billions to develop new General Aviation technologies, Goldin said, "that's your job," indicating that AOPA and the pilot population would have to work to make the general public accept NASA's directions and goals. He went on to say that people don't like airports in their backyard because of the noise, and that when there are quiet airplanes, it is possible that objections to airports will go away.

Goldin was quick to point out where NASA's job ends and industry's begins. The agency supports the development of new core technologies, but not of consumer products. It also avoids engaging in activities that would give one company an advantage over another. NASA's role is to support high-risk R&D that industry can't afford to do on its own. "We'll fail occasionally," Goldin predicted, "because 100% success means you didn't set the goals high enough." True to his word, Goldin laid out a set of eight specific goals that went far beyond what anyone in the general aviation industry would have set for themselves. It was a most impressive and thought-provoking proposal.

Over the next year, NASA will be working with various aviation groups to define and refine the general goals Goldin outlined in his AOPA Expo speech. Throughout that speech, Goldin often ended a sentence with the statement, "you tell me." He promised to come back to the AOPA meeting next year in Atlantic City, New Jersey to finalize the goals, and then to report back annually on the progress made toward those goals by NASA and industry.

Can you imagine what would have happened if, in 1925, a group had looked carefully at the automobile and tried to plan a road system for the future? Today, we might actually have cities with decent roadways. The interstate highway system might have been built years earlier, and we might have a far better infrastructure than we do today.

Goldin's vision — or something like it — may well turn out be the future of General Aviation. If so, the future is a bright one. To naysayers who believe GA has no future, Goldin strongly disagrees. Looking into the future can be frightening, and planning for it offers big rewards but high risk. This is about United States, our airports, our airplanes, and our future mobility and lifestyle.

Listen to Goldin's speech. It'll make your day.